NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ -- Since the flu season started Oct. 1, 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there have been at least 9.7 million illnesses, 87,000 hospitalizations and 4,800 deaths from influenza in 46 states.
As of Jan. 4, 2020, 32 pediatric deaths caused by flu have been reported in the nation, 21 of which were caused by the influenza B virus and 11 caused by influenza A.
Infectious disease expert David Cennimo at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School discusses this year’s flu season and how you can protect yourself.
How is New Jersey faring compared to the rest of the country in influenza cases?
CENNIMO: The CDC reports that New Jersey is one of the states where the flu is widespread. The state reports approximately 2,000 cases and two pediatric deaths.
What strains are prevalent this year?
CENNIMO: The hallmarks are the predominance of the influenza B strain and how early the outbreaks started this year. At this time, the current activity is higher than the average of the three highest recent seasons. The levels we are seeing now are what we expect in February in most seasons. It is too early to know whether the season has peaked or if flu activity will continue to increase. It’s also too early to know the effectiveness of the vaccine, but so far, we have not seen any significant resistance developing in the influenza viruses.
The CDC does look at sample viruses from varied locations to determine how similar they are to the strains in this year’s vaccine. So far, the matches for the H1N1 and B/Yamagata strain are quite strong. As in past years, the similarities between the circulating H3N2 and its vaccine component are not as strong, but this does not necessarily mean the vaccine won’t work. Children and young adults are most susceptible to the B/Victoria strain, which is prevalent: It accounts for 46% of reported viruses in children up to 5 and 58% in people age 5 to 24. Having the flu shot is still beneficial as it will help protect people who contract the flu from getting life-threatening complications.
Should people still get vaccinated?
CENNIMO: It is recommended that people still get the flu vaccination if they have not already. Even if you think you had the flu already, it is possible to get a second infection with a different strain, so immunization can still be beneficial. The vaccination can reduce symptoms and duration even if you get the flu. Most family physicians, pediatrician offices, primary care clinics and pharmacies offer the influenza vaccine. You cannot get the flu from the flu shot, but immunity usually takes about two weeks to develop.
People should also continue to practice good hygiene, like washing your hands, coughing into your sleeve, disposing used tissues and staying home if you’re sick. If you are sick, avoiding people who are hospitalized, undergoing cancer treatment or who have diabetes or other chronic illnesses is a good idea.
What complications can accompany the flu?
CENNIMO: Sinus and ear infections are examples of moderate complications of flu, but a frequent serious complication, particularly in people with chronic lung disease, is pneumonia. In addition to pneumonia, serious complications include inflammation of the heart, brain or muscle tissues and multi-organ failure, such as respiratory and kidney failure. The flu itself can lead to respiratory failure and death.
When should you call your doctor?
CENNIMO: A doctor can prescribe medication to treat the flu. It is most effective if started within the first 48 hours of symptoms, so it’s important to call as soon as flu is suspected. Common symptoms include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue, vomiting and diarrhea. The last two are more common in children than adults.
Symptoms can be alleviated quickly with medication prescribed by your doctor. Do not delay in seeking care if you think you contracted the flu. Antiviral medications can shorten the time you are ill and prevent more severe infection and complications but need to be taken as soon as possible for the best results.